The Fifth Servant: Book summary and reviews of The Fifth Servant by Kenneth Wishnia

The Fifth Servant

By Kenneth Wishnia

The Fifth Servant
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  • Published in USA  Feb 2010,
    400 pages.

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Book Summary

Whoever saves a single life saves the entire world ....

In 1592, as the Catholic Church and the Protestants battle for control of the soul of Europe, Prague is a relatively safe harbor in the religious storm. Ruled by Emperor Rudolph II, the city is a refuge to Jews who live within the gated walls of its ghetto. But their lives are jeopardized when a young Christian girl is found with her throat slashed in a Jewish shop on the eve of Passover. Charged with blood libel, the shopkeeper and his family are arrested. All that stands in the way of a rabid Christian mob is a clever Talmudic scholar, newly arrived from Poland, named Benyamin Ben-Akiva. Pleading the shopkeeper's innocence to the city's sheriff, Benyamin is given three days to bring the true killer to justice.

But the search will not be easy. Hampered by rabbinic law, and with no allies or connections, Benyamin has only his wits, knowledge, and faith to guide him on his quest--a trail that weaves from the city's teeming streets to the quiet of a shul, from the forbidden back rooms of a ghetto brothel to the emperor's lavish palace. The Talmud says many things in life depend on mazl, luck. Fortunately, Benyamin is blessed, for an unlikely group of heroes will risk their own lives to help him discover the truth: Anya, a Christian butcher's daughter; the renowned reformist rabbi Judah Loew; a wise herbal healer known as Kassandra the Bohemian; and even the emperor himself.

Who would most profit from the girl's murder--and from having the entire ghetto sealed off? Is the killer a Christian indebted to the girl's apothecary father? Or a messianic Jew bent on the destruction of his people to precipitate the Messiah's coming? The desperate search for answers is complicated by the arrival of a new Holy Inquisitor determined to root out witchcraft and heresy, and reclaim the fractious Bohemian territory for Rome. With time running out, Benyamin must dare the impossible--and commit the unthinkable--to save the Jews of Prague ... and his own life.

Infused with history and spiritual insight, rich in atmosphere and color, The Fifth Servant vividly recreates sixteenth-century Prague--a bustling city where superstition, ignorance, and hatred clash with curiosity, knowledge, and tolerance; a world in which innocent lives are swept away by political and religious struggles, and righteous men and women sacrifice everything in the name of justice and truth.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Starred Review. Well-developed characters and detailed portrayals of life at the time help make this historical crime thriller a gripping page-turner." - Publishers Weekly

"Starred Review.This fast-paced historical from Edgar nominee Wishnia (23 Shades of Black) combines scholarly historical details that bring the 16th century alive with believable characters and a compelling mystery. Highly recommended for mystery lovers and fans of historical fiction." - Library Journal

"A densely philosophical yet surprisingly witty historical mystery." - Booklist

"Works nicely on at least three levels: as history, mystery and theology." - Kirkus Reviews

"Whatever you are currently reading, I promise you it is not nearly as intelligent, witty, compelling or entertaining as The Fifth Servant by Kenneth Wishnia....Wishnia makes history come alive." - David Liss, author of The Devil's Company and The Whiskey Rebels

"In his fiercely intelligent and entrancing novel The Fifth Servant, Kenneth Wishnia gives us a 16th- century Prague that is rich, labyrinthine, and utterly compelling. Drawn in first by its soft wit, we soon find ourselves swept into a tale both intricate and haunting, its twists and turns carrying us breathlessly to the very last page." - Megan Abbott, Edgar Award-winning author of Bury Me Deep and Queenpin

"The Fifth Servant offers a unique blend of mystery and Talmud set against an intriguing historical background." - Linda Barnes, author of Lie Down with the Devil

"The Fifth Servant proves that academia, wit, and a compelling mystery may all be found in one book. And what a suspenseful, enthralling story this is – accessible and hugely entertaining, it is an astounding novel." - Ken Bruen, author of Sanctuary

"The richness of the setting of The Fifth Servant is matched by the complexity and appeal of its characters. With apparent ease Kenneth Wishnia makes solid and real the sounds, sights, and smells of a vanished and legendary time." - S. J. Rozan, Edgar Award-winning author of The Shanghai Moon

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Reader Reviews

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Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by MarcĂ­a from New Jersey
Thoughtful, well researched & exciting storyline
Wishnia gives a detailed experience of what life was like during the 16th century Prague, including superstitions and rituals of the Jewish & Christian traditions and a murder mystery with lots of twists and turns that will surprise you til the end.

Wishnia pulls no punches when identifying offending parties & situations leading to the murder. His rich characterizations give readers a complete and plausible (but unexpected) explanation of how and why the crime occurred.

This is a dense read-not bubbly beach book-but well worth it.

Rated 2 of 5 of 5 by Joanne V. (Towanda, PA)
I really tried to like this book!
I just couldn't get into this book and I struggled with it from the beginning. I am sorry to say, I couldn't finish it. Good research, interesting languages, but I felt I was in school reading a text book and since I am student no more, I just dropped it. Sorry!

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Bill L. (Hilliard, OH)
The Fifth Servant
I really enjoyed The Fifth Servant. From the start, it was was well thought out with multiple twists and turns to keep you on the edge of your seat. So suspenseful, that I couldn't put the book down once I started reading. Wishina has a wonderful way with words that makes you believe you are actually in the story itself. Don't be put off by the language barrier, it's part of the journey that will make this a memorable story you will never forget.

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Wendy R. (Riverside, CA)
The Fifth Servant
The Fifth Servant takes place over three days, but is not a fast paced book for all the author tries to accomplish, both in conveying the historical aspects of the time period as well as the more philosophical discussions that take place between the characters. There are also the personal stories. Benyamin's attempts to reconcile with his wife and Anya and her own internal struggles, including whether or not to pursue forbidden love. There is building tension, especially as Benyamin's deadline to bring forward the real killer approaches and the angry mob outside the gates grows more and more violent. The mystery itself, the search for what happened to the murdered girl, seemed almost secondary to the other events taking place to the book. Still, it definitely is what moved the story forward.

The Fifth Servant was not quite I expected, but I did enjoy it. I would have preferred there to have been more of a balance between the mystery itself and the other aspects of the novel; however, there was so much going on that I can see how challenging that might be. The inquisition is an interesting and sad part of our world's history, and I was inspired to do a little research into the time period the novel is set in after finishing it--always a good sign.

Rated 2 of 5 of 5 by Deborah M. (Chambersburug, PA)
"Look at all my research!"
I found this book unenjoyable and very difficult to finish, mainly because the author seems to parade his extensive research at the expense of a good story. It wasn't so much the use of expressions in multiple languages, but more the stream of minute details about Jewish culture, history, and religion that bogged me down. I'm an academic myself (and my field is the 16th century, which is why I selected this book), but when I read historical fiction, my first criteria is that a book has to give me pleasure. I love to learn from well-researched fiction, but I don't want to be beaten into boredom by an author's research. This book might have more appeal to readers with a particular interest in Jewish history and Talmudic law; but I found the mystery thin and the characters rather weak.

Rated 3 of 5 of 5 by Kelly P. (Monterey, TN)
Good book, bad mystery
The setting of the story, the period in history, the characterization, and the emotional impact resulting from the facts of Jewish life in that era all contributed to a fascinating novel. Unfortunately however, the mystery at the heart of the book detracted from an otherwise interesting read. It felt like this book started out as pure historical fiction and a late decision was made to shoehorn in a mystery. The author did a masterful job of recreating life in the Prague ghetto and the religious persecution of the era. I wish he would have stayed with that theme and left out the murder-mystery.

...12 more reader reviews

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More Information

Kenneth Wishnia has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, and has been widely published in various academic forums. His crime fiction has been nominated for the Edgar and Anthony Awards. He currently teaches composition, literature, and creative writing at Suffolk Community College. He lives with his wife and children on Long Island. He can be found online at www.kjawishnia.com.

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